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That sheep’s milk cheese came from a cow

Food fraud can mean that you're being overcharged and misled. How can you tell if you're being hoodwinked?

By Karen Datko Mar 30, 2010 6:41PM

We first read about large-scale food fraud when The New Yorker wrote about the Italian olive oil industry several years ago. Whoa. Was the pricey EVOO in our cupboard really something else -- hazelnut oil, perhaps?


Actually, food fraud is growing so quickly, The Washington Post reports, that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is under increasing pressure to get involved. Without verification that labeling is accurate, you could be paying Cadillac prices for the food equivalent of a Hyundai Accent.


Here are some examples we came across in the Post and elsewhere:

  • Honey diluted with corn syrup or sugar beets, but no mention of that on the label.
  • 10 million pounds of Vietnamese catfish sold as flounder, red snapper and grouper. Also, “wild” salmon raised on a farm.
  • Sheep’s milk cheese that’s really made with cow's milk.
  • 18 million bottles of Red Bicyclette pinot noir allegedly filled with cheaper syrah and merlot.
  • French cognac diluted with a cheap U.S. brand.
  • Eggs from caged chickens sold as products of free-range birds.
  • Buffalo mozzarella that is actually 30% cow’s milk, and run-of-the-mill prosciutto sold as Parma ham.

Technology, such DNA testing, exists to verify that many foods are actually what the label claims, but the FDA has too little staff to keep track. Food fraud is generally considered a crime of economic deception rather than a public health threat, according to Newsweek (unless you have food allergies, the magazine correctly observed).


Meanwhile, honey and olive oil associations are calling for FDA-imposed standards so reputable producers can sue cheaters. 


How can you be sure you’re paying for the real deal? That’s tricky.


Some states have imposed standards of their own. Florida and Wisconsin require that any honey sold in their states must be pure. Connecticut, California, Oregon, and New York have adopted standards for olive oil.


Michigan State University has a new program to develop a worldwide strategy to address the problem, Food Safety News reports.


That’s a start. But shoppers will have to become smarter consumers.

  • Know what the food is supposed to look and taste like. Newsweek said, “In 2007, the University of North Carolina found that 77% of fish labeled as red snapper -- a flavorful white fish most commonly harvested in the Gulf of Mexico -- was actually tilapia, a much more ubiquitous and less flavorful species.” Also, free-range chickens will have darker leg meat than their caged counterparts.
  • Know what it costs. “If it says ‘extra virgin’ [olive oil] but it's going for $3 a gallon, it might be soybean oil dyed green with chlorophyll -- cheaper, but not nearly as healthy,” Newsweek said.
  • Know where it came from. Buying locally can help with that. For instance, I buy chicken from a local producer I’m personally familiar with.

If you're really curious, you can probably have the food tested yourself. Two New York City students did.


Related reading:

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